Local political leadership or a fool-proof system?

Local political leadership or a fool-proof system?

Local political leadership or a fool-proof system? 2560 1795 Agenda for Change

By Stef Smits, Senior programme officer | Coordinator Latin America Regional Programme, IRC

Last week, a number of Agenda for Change members that are working on WASH systems strengthening in countries in Latin America came together for a learning and sharing event. A key point of discussion in that event was the importance of political leadership at local level, but also the systemic changes needed to be less dependent on such leadership, so as to make sustainable WASH services delivery more fool-proof.

The Agenda for Change learning and sharing event brought together senior programme staff from seven Agenda for Change member organisations, and a number of other like-minded organisations, from across the continent: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Participants shared examples and case studies from across the countries on how they had supported the strengthening of local (i.e., municipal) WASH systems. Some highlights included:

  • The establishment, institutionalisation and strengthening of municipal WASH offices in amongst others Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In all these countries, municipalities are WASH service authorities, and need to fulfil a number of functions, such as planning, oversight and technical assistance to rural service providers. In all countries, the organisations had supported not only establishing such offices in a number of municipalities. They had also influenced national strategies, regulations and processes to support the further institutionalisation of such offices in the national frameworks.
  • Supporting municipalities with the assessments of the costs of services provision and influencing the increase of funding to cover these costs. A good example of that was the work of Para Todos, Por Siempre in Honduras, particularly through Water For People and IRC. This work led, for example, to increases in municipal funding for direct support, and the establishment of dedicated budget lines for WASH within municipal budgets. In Ecuador, CARE has supported the establishment of a revolving fund at municipal level, amongst others for investment in local water resources management.
  • Supporting the roll-out of national monitoring systems in municipalities. For example, in Nicaragua and Peru, organisations had supported municipalities in collection and analysis of data using national monitoring systems and the institutionalization of these monitoring tools within the municipalities.
Local political leadership

Local political leadership was in most of these cases a key reason for success. Mayors were committed to improving WASH services provision in their municipalities. In addition, they were then willing to prioritize investing in that, not only in investing in the hardware, but also in the necessary municipal systems, such as having municipal WASH offices, WASH budgets and monitoring systems. The funding of these systems to a large extent comes out of the municipal coffers so are a good sign of real commitment to WASH service delivery.

The importance of political leadership is consistent with the literature on systems change, with the discussions had at the recent All systems go! symposium, and with the collaborative behaviours of SWA.


During the learning and sharing event, we also took at critical look at this local political leadership. The flip-side of local political leadership is that such leadership can also easily go away, and is inherently unscalable. When a new mayor or municipal council is elected, they may prioritize other development needs. And it is impossible to think of countries, in which all 200, 300 or even 1000 mayors or councils give political priority to WASH.

It raised the question on how do we make sure that the commitment to WASH depends less on whoever is elected as mayor or councillor, on whatever his or her political priorities. In other words, how do we make the commitment to WASH more fool-proof.

The event showed that the answer to this lies in the details of the frameworks of the fiscal decentralisation. Examples include:

  • Having earmarked percentages of the municipal budget for WASH. In Nicaragua, for example 7.5% of the municipal budget needs to be spent on WASH. Also, Colombia has budget earmarks for WASH.
  • Using fiscal incentives related to performance. In Peru and Ecuador, municipalities get an extra share out of the budget coming from treasuries if they achieve certain performance targets. Some of these targets relate to the performance in the field of WASH.
  • Complying with planning and monitoring requirements as condition for disbursements.

These and other mechanisms incentivize or even oblige mayors to give the due (relative) priority to WASH. This of course doesn’t mean that it is a guarantee for success. Mayors may still then invest all the WASH money in infrastructure and not in sustainability. And the quality of planning and monitoring documents may still be weak. But they are important steps on the way towards stronger WASH systems.

In countries where these kinds of frameworks are present, there has been strong national technical and political leadership for WASH, and stronger support to decentralisation frameworks in general. So at this level political leadership does matter a lot.

What does this mean for Agenda for Change members?

These reflections have a number of implications for Agenda for Change members:

  1. In countries, where the decentralisation frameworks are not as well developed, it does remain important to strengthen local political leadership for WASH. That generates then the models that can inspire other municipalities, and importantly, the national government.
  2. Engage more with the ministries responsible for the broader decentralisation frameworks. The kinds of earmarks, incentives and conditionality mechanisms rarely are developed within the WASH sector. They form part of the broader framework of fiscal decentralisation. Though the Agenda for Change members have historically less experience with engaging with the responsible ministries, some good examples of influencing those were shared.
  3. Strengthen national political leadership for WASH. To get WASH better articulated in the frameworks for (fiscal) decentralisation can be supported a lot by having strong political leadership from national government.
  4. Have parallel streams of work of strengthening municipal and national WASH systems strengthening. In either of the two broad contexts (stronger and weaker systems of decentralisation), there remains the need to have parallel streams of work at municipal and national level. in contexts with stronger decentralisation frameworks, focus needs to be on applying and complying the frameworks and ensuring this is done with quality at municipal level. But, also still there will be need to refine these frameworks. For example, from Colombia, several calls were made to make sure that the national systems better take into account different levels of capacity in different parts of the country. In countries with weaker decentralisation systems, the municipal level work is key to model what good municipal WASH service delivery would look like. This would then be used for advocacy and influencing at national level, both within the WASH and the decentralisation sectors.

Surely, this is not an easy approach to be taken, and rarely one that a single organization can take on. The Agenda for Change members therefore also highlight the importance of alliances, partnerships or collaborations. Only through collective action by a range of organisations with different skills and expertise can one work on the many fronts that systems change requires.

[Find presentations from the learning event here (all presentations are in Spanish)]

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